Unnerving Words of an Idiosyncratic Genius

Greek mythology has a story about a bandit called Procrustes. His name means “the stretcher.” True to his name, Procrustes was a rogue smith who would abduct travelers, treat them with a lavish dinner and invite them to spend the night in a special bed.

He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection, writes Taleb in his book The Bed of Procrustes, “Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched.”

Nobody ever fitted the bed exactly and Procrustes’ reign of terror continued until he was captured by Theseus who “fitted” Procrustes in his own bed.

A Procrustean solution is thus the practice of forcefully fitting reality to the rigid containers of theoretical models and preconceived structures. This post is a compilation of my highlights and notes from The Bed of Procrustes — Taleb’s lesser known book.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is at the top of my list of favourite authors. Look at my favourite books and you’d find Taleb’s Antifragile as the first item.

He’s someone who is least bothered about writing best selling books. Taleb has neither any desire nor any regard for things like New York Times best seller list. Ironically, all his books have been smashing hits and he has a cult-like fan following.

Explaining the theme of Procrustean Bed, Taleb writes —

We humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which on the occasion, has explosive consequences.

This book is a collection of aphorisms from Taleb. It could be dangerous to read such books for short sentences can be misinterpreted when the context is missing. Nevertheless, pithy sayings have always been the favoured method of ancient thinkers and philosophers to pack their wisdom.

Taleb again —

Aphorisms, maxims, proverbs, short sayings, even, to some extent, epigrams are the earliest literary form – often integrated into what we now call poetry. They carry the cognitive compactness of the sound bite…Aphorisms require us to change our reading habits and approach them in small doses; each one of them is a complete unit, a complete narrative dissociated from others.

The best part about this book is that Taleb has refrained from adding details to his one-liners.

“If you want to annoy a poet, explain his poetry.” quips Taleb. “Aphorisms lose their charm whenever explained.”

It would annoy him if he finds out that someone (yours truly) tried to add commentary to his aphorisms. So I won’t do it.

I’ll merely reproduce a small sample of quotes from the book which created fireworks in my brain. I hope they have the same effect on you.

So, get ready for the unnerving words of an idiosyncratic genius.

To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it.

Modernity’s double punishment is to make us both age prematurely and live longer.

In nature we never repeat the same motion; in captivity (office, gym, commute, sports), life is just repetitive-stress injury. No randomness.

The test of whether you really liked a book is if you reread it (and how many times).

We ask “why is he rich (or poor)?” not “why isn’t he richer (or poorer)?”; “why is the crisis so deep?” not “why isn’t it deeper?”

Most people fear being without audiovisual stimulation because they are too repetitive when they think and imagine things on their own.

The book is the only medium left that hasn’t been corrupted by the profane. Everything else on your eyelids manipulates you with an ad.

To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.

Fortune punishes the greedy by making him poor and the very greedy by making him rich.

“Wealthy” is meaningless and has no robust absolute measure; use instead the subtractive measure “unwealth,” that is, the difference, at any point in time, between what you have and what you would like to have.

Someone who says “I am busy” is either declaring incompetence (and lack of control of his life) or trying to get rid of you.

You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept.

People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels — people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.

Over the long term, you’re more likely to fool yourself than others.

There are two types of people: those who try to win and those who try to win arguments. They are never the same.

We are hunters; we are only truly alive in those moments when we improvise; no schedule, just small surprises and stimuli from the environment.

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.

It’s much harder to write a book review for a book you’ve read than for a book you haven’t read.

Robust is when you care more about the few who like your work than the multitude who dislike it (artist); fragile when you care more about the few who dislike your work than the multitude who like it (politicians).

They think that intelligence is about noticing things that are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns). [Corollary: The best way to spot a charlatan: someone (like a consultant or a stock-broker) who tells you what to do instead of what not to do.]

A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see.

What organized dating sites fail to understand is that people are far more interesting in what they don’t say about themselves.

A good foe is far more loyal, far more predictable, and, to the clever, far more useful than the most valuable admirer.

Parting Thoughts

Being a parent, the sentence that shook me the hardest was about the procrustean methods that society is thrusting on our kids. Taleb writes —

Few realize that we are changing the brains of schoolchildren through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse.

Having experienced (intermittently) the luxury of freedom from conventional 9-to-5 routine, I could relate to what Taleb wrote as the closing sentence of the book.

By setting oneself totally free of this debilitating activity called work, elements hidden in the texture of reality start staring at you; then mysteries that you never thought existed emerge in front of your eyes.